The dark side of goats

Russ Daly Special to the Farm Forum
Farm Forum

I really don’t have anything against goats.

Honestly, I’m neither a goat enthusiast, nor a goat hater. I’m probably exactly in the middle of those two extremes. My goat opinions began forming at an early age, as I had a pet goat as a kid. This nondescript white goat with the imaginative name of Billy even garnered me a participation ribbon at the 1969 Brown County Fair Pet Parade. Billy resided in a small pen in the backyard that was only partially successful at constraining him. I guess Billy was OK for a pet, but not as much fun as a dog, I remember.

I saw some goats during my days in veterinary practice, most of the calls coming from places on the outskirts of town with pens like Billy’s. I’d check an individual critter that was sick, bloated, or having trouble giving birth.

I never shied away from goat calls, but I never felt 100% confident with them either. They seemed somewhat more complicated than sheep when it came to things like castrating and dehorning them. In recent years, it seems the number of goat operations has expanded and many are quite well-run. On a trip to Kenya, I learned how valuable goats are to the rural economy. Even a small goat herd was a sign of prosperity for a villager.

All this leads me to a talk at our most recent South Dakota One Health meeting, which had the topic of preventing diseases spread between animals and people at petting zoos and farm visits. As you may have observed, goats are very popular animals at petting zoos. As animals go, they’re small and very personable – friendly and non-threatening to youngsters.

However, these critters have a dark side. This dark side involves a bacteria called E. coli O157, the nasty bug that has been associated with illness, particularly in children who encounter it around (outwardly healthy) animals like calves and goats. It turns out these cute animals have been associated with some pretty significant E. coli outbreaks in people. Two separate outbreaks at fairs in North Carolina resulted in over 200 people getting sick, with more than 20 of them suffering severe complications, and the death of one toddler. Most recently, a Connecticut goat farm welcoming visitors was associated with 51 E. coli illnesses.

These are difficult situations to manage because goats (and other ruminants) can excrete E. coli and not act outwardly sick. The bacteria is in their manure, which then contaminates their pen. When the goats lie down, the bacteria transfers to their coat. Kids then pick it up when they pet the animal and inadvertently swallow it when they put their hands to their mouth. The animal’s saliva can also serve as an E. coli source, spreading the bacteria to people through licking or eating from their hands.

Direct contact with goats therefore is a risk factor, but walking or sitting in the animals’ pen itself is even riskier because E. coli is waiting there in the bedding and on the pen dividers. Many petting zoos are “immersion” experiences where kids get right into the pen with the goats. It’s very hard to avoid the bacteria getting on clothes and shoes in these settings, to be spread elsewhere after the visit.

And what’s more, have you heard about “Goat Yoga”? People are conducting yoga classes in goat pens, where the friendly critters nibble and climb on the students, and presumably occasionally dump E. coli onto their yoga mats! It sounds strange, but these events are held closer than you might think!

Any chance that people – especially kids – have to interact with animals is a good thing. Those of us that worry about stuff like bacteria and zoonotic disease, however, want to make sure these interactions are positive and healthy. Our first step should be to understand that even these adorable little goats may carry some downside with them. Always wash hands immediately after the encounter, and stay out of their pens (unless wearing boots and coveralls). A little common sense goes a long way in avoiding illness that could come from these friendly creatures.

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension veterinarian at South Dakota State University. He can be reached via e-mail at russell.daly@sdstate.edu or at 605-688-5171.